Title: AquaNox 2: Revelation
Developer: Massive Development
Publisher: JoWooD Productions (UK edition by Koch Media UK)
Date Published: Q4 2002 (Germany), Q3 2003 (Rest of World)
Platforms: PC CD-ROM

AquaNox 2: Revelation is the third game (after 1996's Archimedean Dynasty and 2001's AquaNox) to be set in Massive Development's underwater dystopia of Aqua, a future Earth circa 2666 which has been wrecked by pollution and war forcing the surviving humans to flee the inhospitable land masses and colonise the depths of the ocean. It is probably the best attempt so far at the simulation of (physically improbable) submarine dogfighting, an idea which has repeatedly attracted developers (from Particle Systems' SubWar 2050 to Irem's Sub Rebellion) wishing to transpose the conventions of space combat to a more visually interesting, stealthy and claustrophobic setting. The resulting game is a mission-based shooter where the missions are interspersed with conversations between the game's characters which advance the plot.

AquaNox 2 tells a side story which takes place during the same time period as AquaNox, but revolves around the lives of a new cast of characters. (Characters from the two previous games occasionally crop up in supporting roles.) The player takes the role of William Drake, the young and naive captain of the Harvester, a submarine freighter that is all that is left of his family's once-great trading empire. His father disappeared searching for a mythical treasure belonging to his ancestors and his mother was murdered ten years previously by pirates. The story opens with Drake responding to a (hoax) distress call. He takes the Harvester's one-man fighter/exploration craft (the Salty Dog) to assist, only to be attacked by the low-life crook who had made the call. Drake (i.e. the player) fights off the attacker and makes his way back to the Harvester, only to find that in his absence, the ship has been boarded by a crew of mercenaries led by a gruff Yorkshireman called Amitab. Although they effectively hijack his ship and hold him hostage, this crew of outlaws take the roles that would be filled by the wingmen and fellow officers in a traditional mission-based game (e.g. Wing Commander).

It turns out that Amitab is also looking for the mythical treasure (the Stone Sepulchre) that Drake's father was. He is being advised in his quest by a mysterious, haggard-looking right-hand man known only as Nat. There are five other crew members with highly diverse backgrounds and personalities, who all serve the story (and game) in different ways. Stoney Fox is a 'cool' black guy who acts as an A.I. wingman and (through his tendancy to get into scrapes) presents the player with additional missions away from the main story line. Angelina is a rather dour woman who hangs around on the Harvester and comes out with foreboding speeches about destiny, although apparently she develops into the story's main love interest later in the game. May Ling is a Ronin, an outcast from Aqua's Japanese society (the Shogunate) who acts as a rival love interest for Drake (as well as another A.I. wingman). Animal (no relation to his muppet namesake) is a rehabilitated Crawler (the Crawlers being a Borg-like sect of hostile, cannibalistic scavengers). Finally, Fuzzyhead is the crew's MacGyver-esque mechanic, who salvages weapons and equipment from ships you destroy or capture, and explains the finer points of the game's upgrade and weapons systems.

Drake, Amitab and the others travel on the Harvester to several underwater colonies and cities as they piece together information about the 'Book of Revelations' legend. They forge alliances (and occasionally initiate feuds) with the various characters they encounter (including smugglers, drug dealers, scientists, pirates, mercenaries and prostitutes), and run missions for them, for the right price. When not at the controls of a fighter sub, the player is bidden to explore the current port of call through the point and click 'story interface'. The current settlement (or the Harvester, if on route to somewhere) is presented as an animated, prerendered 2D backdrop, with locations of interest highlighted with text labels. Selecting a location pops up another prerendered backdrop in a sub-window, this time labelled with characters in that location who you can converse with. Clicking on a character initiates yet another window containing character portraits of Drake and his conversational partner, and runs through their conversation in text as well as speech. (This presentation is not a million miles away from the CODEC 2-way radio seen in the Metal Gear Solid games.) There are no dialogue choices offered in conversations, and the order in which they are unlocked is completely linear, so the story interface is only very barely interactive. The only meaningful choice that the player has is whether or not they choose to attempt the missions available at any given time, and in which order they attempt them.

Although the story interface is likely to try the patience of even fans of the most long-winded RPGs, it does have some redeeming qualities. The presentation is very slick, with crisp and detailed graphics used for the backdrops, character portraits and even the windows and buttons (glowing, pulsing and alpha-blending abound, with the ship selection window deserving a special mention for its Transformer-like unfolding animation). The voice acting (short of some version-specific issues described below) is servicable, and the script, when it's not tripping over its predelicition for cheesy futuristic proverbs, shows the amount of effort series writer Helmut Halfmann has put into creating a fully-realised future scenario. The upshot of all this (and the wise inclusion of a fast forward button for conversations) is a very strong sense of atmosphere.

However, all of this scene-setting is a sideshow to the main part of the game, which is the mission system. The player's combat submarine is equipped with a cockpit with a (presumably very strong) glass viewport giving a direct view of the surrounding area. The controls can be configured to act similarly to a first-person shooter (with additional keys to control depth), or more like a flight sim. As with a flight sim, the volume of space (well, water) is bounded by an artificial ceiling, which prevents you from surfacing. The game offers a cockpit view (no padlock view sadly) or a third person view with a positionable chase camera (that can be moved very, very far from the ship). The player's ship can be fitted with several weapons and types of torpedo (the maximum depending on the ship being used, of which there are four available by the end of the game). Weapon types (each having increasingly powerful variants as the game progresses) include gatling guns, EMP weapons (used to disable ships' engines so they can be boarded and salvaged), sniper rifles (which are used to puncture the cockpits of weakly armoured ships), and mortar cannons.

Mission objectives are highly varied. One mission sees the player stealthily creeping around some ruined tower blocks taking out snipers and automated defences. Several involve escorting other ships through hazards and ambushes. One involves disabling transports before they can reach a safe haven, while fighting off their defenders. Another (thankfully optional) involves rapidly clearing a path through a minefield for an escaping smuggler. There are even submarine races and boss encounters. The game keeps a handy log of objectives at all times, and the HUD has a nice 3D radar display which indicates hostile and friendly ships in the area. Unfortunately there is no way to save the game mid-mission, which, although it ensures that the difficulty level isn't totally undermined, can be frustrating on missions that chain several time-consuming objectives. Combat in AquaNox 2 is not overly hampered by the controls and the enemies display fairly convincing A.I. Admittedly, undersea combat is never going to be as fast-paced as space combat, and engaging single enemies more often results in a head-on, circling stand-off than an aquabatic dogfight. One aspect where the developers have taken a leaf from X-Wing's book is the effective use of context sensitive music, which effectively heighens the tension in the heat of battle.

Graphically, AquaNox 2 is a hard game to fault. The landscapes (seascapes? seabeds?) have a very long draw distance, giving the game a great sense of scale. Rays of light filter through from the surface, projecting a dappled effect onto everything. Particles of plankton float through the water. Chasms are shrouded in sumptuous volumetric fog. Sheltered areas of the sea floor are obscured with thick banks of sea plants. Exploring the surroundings can reveal ruined buildings, whale skeletons, towering volcanic rock formations, magma vents, and most importantly, the occasional transport ship or pirate's nest offering a bonus secondary objective. According to the promotional bumph, a single explosion in AquaNox 2 can contain more polygons than an entire scene in AquaNox, and the game was the first on the market to use DirectX 9 (featuring as it does support for 8x multitexturing). Admittedly, after a while one underwater landscape looks much like another, and there aren't any fish (I blame the Spanish fishing fleet), but within the narrow boundaries Massive have set themselves, the game performs well. All of this detail comes at a price, and (at the time of this writing) it is possible to bring even the most powerful CPUs and graphics cards to their knees by turning all the settings to maximum. Thankfully the graphics engine is scalable to the Nth degree, so players should be able to balance image quality and frame rate to suit their preferences and hardware.

AquaNox 2: Revelation is perhaps best described as the game the original AquaNox should have been. While Massive Development should be applauded for seeking out an original game concept instead of throwing in their lot with the overcrowded mainstream PC genres (FPS, RTS, RPG...), it is difficult to recommend AquaNox 2 unreservedly. The story sections quickly become more of a chore to plough through than a reward for progression. While there is nothing obviously amiss in the way the missions are constructed, the slow pace, murky scenery and slightly cumbersome controls dilute the genuine sense of acheivement that comes from successfully completing each mission. I'm sure that some players will become fully immersed in the story, and spend many hours exploring the game and replaying missions to get the best weapons. Even so, I can't help but feel that most players will not have the patience to put up with the game's quirks. In the end, one wonders if Massive shouldn't perhaps re-evaluate their priorities, rein in their desire to tell a story and do something no-one else does, and focus on delivering a compelling action game that is more in tune with the international market's tastes.

Official homepage:

http://www.aquanox-portal.com/


Trivia

AquaNox: Revelation (as it was then) was originally intended to be an add-on pack for AquaNox. At some time during its development it was decided to retitle the game and develop it into a full-blown sequel. The game uses the original AquaNox codebase but practically everything in it (in terms of art, models, effects, controls...) has been replaced.

The KRASS™ engine that powers the game (developed in-house) is also used in the game SpellForce: The Order of Dawn by Phenomic Game Development. Massive also use it to power their 'real-world' DirectX 9 benchmark program, AquaMark3, although this seems to have become trapped in development hell...

German developers Massive Development, for all their good intentions, have a patchy track record in translating their games for English audiences. (The original AquaNox was critically battered for its long-winded script and amateurish voice acting.) During the development of AquaNox 2: Revelation, the UK branch of JoWooD Productions, unhappy with the voices used in pre-release versions of the game, arranged to have some of the dialogue (the parts of William Drake, Stoney Fox, Amitab and Hank Bellows) re-recorded by new actors using a heavily rewritten script. Due to financial difficulties, JoWooD Productions sold the UK publishing rights for AquaNox 2: Revelation to distributors-turned-publishers Koch Media. Unfortunately, due to the timing of this deal, Koch apparently decided to use the original voices. The English language playable demo of the game and, as far as I am aware, the US retail version both use the re-recorded voices. Unfortunately I don't have access to either of the retail versions to compare them. (Update: I can now confirm that the UK version released by Koch uses the new voices.)

For the German version, the characters Stoney Fox and May Ling are voiced by the actors who provided their portraits: Yumiko Shingo and George J. Reiley. Yumiko Shingo also appears on the game's (rather Masamune Shirow inspired) cover art.

Unusually, the character portraits in the game are a mixture of hand-painted images and heavily retouched photographs, done so effectively that it's sometimes hard to tell which is which. Although not always: it appears that the portrait of the drug-dealer Atahualpa Jones was based on a photo of a young Al Pacino...

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